By Matt Smith
“Christmas is my favorite time of year. As the beauty of the season surrounds us, it’s quite exciting. However, sometimes we take the holidays for granted. And even when we think we have things all figured out, we realize we don’t.”
Such is the plight at the center of the brash and brassy holiday extravaganza whose title boldly claims, “Christmas Ain’t a Drag.” Whether or not you wholly agree with that assertion, may fluctuate depending on your level of Grinchy grouchiness, but know that though it’s not without its evident hiccups, it’s balanced out with enough thematic humor and heart to ignite the warm and fuzzies within and keep you smiling throughout the night.
The action follows four individuals looking for love “in all the wrong places” who converge at the dazzling and debonair Club Deveaux, where bonds are solidified, patience is tested, and secrets are revealed. As the feathers fly and the masks come off, the fiery foursome is forced to face their truths and ultimately discover — and accept — the true meaning of the spirited season.
Overseeing the goings-on, at the helm of the club — itself a seemingly seedier and more run-down rendition of La Cage aux Folles — is Benedict Deveaux, who tries his best to emulate Georges. While the character himself may slightly fall short due to a lack of depth or character development (most of that energy is spent on fleshing out the love story of our four main players), his portrayer, John Carlin, is top-notch, milking the miserly master of ceremonies for all he’s worth, dishing out one-liners and good-natured jabs (“Thank you for your patronage from the bottom of your pocketbooks to the top of mine!”) with a devilishly captivating – if slightly biting – charm.
Arguably the best portrayal of the night overall, his success lay in the fact that – both as a character inviting us into his club and as a player inviting us into the action – he was a genial host, who made us feel safe. With him, we knew we were in good hands… even if one of them was vying for our wallets.
Equally impressive is Billy Blanks, Jr., as Deveaux headliner Holly Dei, who’s just as enchanting and alluring when inhabiting his nightclub persona, as he is poignant and heart-wrenching when relaying his character’s lovelorn insecurities.
Of note, given it’s Christmas-centric aura, the production team should be lauded for maintaining a festive environment — in part, undoubtedly, aided by their setting — with self-referential jokes abound and plenty of (encouraged) hootin’ and hollerin’ throughout, especially in the presence of the aforementioned Ms. Dei.
However, where this ambitious production falls short is in the execution of the actual dialogue. Not helped by the vast layout of the venue and rather unreliable acoustics, the show is so saturated with song after song after song that you may begin to lose focus of the actual plot. A quick perusal of the program lets us know the basics — as mentioned, the lives of four distinct city folk intertwine, and thoughtful, snappy song lyrics make it easy to tell who has feelings about who — but specific details (like the one that outlines Trish used to moonlight at the club, but lost her chance at stardom when she became pregnant, and is now struggling to make ends meet) might be missed without a second review of the material.
While the director should be deservedly recognized for fully utilizing the space in its entirety, sending actors weaving in and out of the aisles throughout the evening, the venue is, at times, a bit too big for its own good (especially from the vantage point of the general bar), not only resulting in action being missed, but compromising the intimacy the production so heavily promotes.
What ultimately saves it is the snazzy jazzy big band, with its trumpets blaring and saxophones wailing, to immerse you in the “feel-good” era in which the musical takes place. Particularly emphatic in the title number, the music, an eclectic offering of rock, jazz and soft, serenading tunes is – along with its accompanying orchestra, featuring lyricist David George and expertly conducted by Bob Malone – toe-tappingly crisp and robust, putting a twist on what we may perceive the sounds of the season could be.
In short, it’s a valiant effort and enjoyable — the joyful, buoyant tunes, to pull a line from the show, certainly “ain’t a drag” — but, with a bit of work, particularly in terms of the script, it could be the type of holly jolly holiday spectacle that would really make the season even extra merry and bright.
Following a fruitful three-year developmental period, David George’s Christmas Ain’t a Drag premiered on December 7th at the Cutting Room (44 E. 32 Street) in NYC. For more information on the future of this production, visit xmasaintadrag.com.